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In Treatment: Season Three

Gabriel Byrne and Debra Winger in the third season of HBO’s In Treatment. [Photo: HBO]

In Treatment: Season Three 3 out of 4

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When Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) tries to explain psychoanalysis to his reluctant new patient, Sunil (Irrfan Khan), he says that it's best to see it as a "kind of conversation." Sunil responds that it's a strange sort of conversation where one person does all the talking and is expected to reveal their most personal thoughts without any reciprocation. Weston smiles because he knows it's true. Analysis is nothing if not a one-sided conversation, but Sunil was perhaps being a bit too idealistic. One person may be doing all the talking, but their words are most often used for concealment rather than revelation. It's the "kind of conversation" that ends up a lot like a verbal chess game.

Adapted from the popular Israeli TV series BeTipul, In Treatment, in its first two seasons, showed Weston confronted again and again by patients who were not satisfied with this one-way conversation. He was continually forced to examine just how close to the line he could allow the doctor-patient relationship to go without becoming compromised. He often found himself unable to strike the right balance, and it's this conflict that continues to fuel the drama of the third season.

As in previous seasons, each half-hour episode focuses on a single patient. This season we are presented with three, rather than four, patients, along with Weston's own sessions with his new therapist, Adele (Amy Ryan). The patients come to him with a diverse array of problems. Following the death of his wife of 30 years, Sunil has been uprooted from his home in Calcutta and forced to live in New York City with his son and American daughter-in-law. He struggles to fit into a culture he finds both repulsive and fascinating, one he believes is perfectly captured by the CBS program Survivor, where a million dollars appears to be just the right price for an American to give up all of his dignity. Frances (Debra Winger) is a fading stage and screen star who comes to Paul when she finds that she can no longer remember her lines while rehearsing a new Broadway play. But this is merely a symptom of much deeper issues involving her relationship with her teenage daughter and her terminally ill sister. Jesse (Dane DeHaan) is 16 years old and openly gay, dealing with feelings of alienation at home with his adoptive parents and with the sudden reemergence of his birth mother into his life. As usual, all three want more from Weston than he's comfortable giving, and in each case, Weston bends his rules in order to establish a greater level of intimacy. Weston himself is dealing with his divorce and the possibility that he may be afflicted with Parkinson's disease like his late father.

The one-session-per-episode format is brilliant in its simplicity, but there was an uncertainty and inconsistency in much of the first season, with some overly clever weaving of storylines and soapy melodrama (Dr. Weston's extramarital affair with one of his patients was particularly unnecessary). However, the second season was masterful. Some storylines worked better than others, but the series as a whole reached some towering moments of honest human interaction and communication. Most importantly, the writers learned to embrace the dramatic advantages of the minimalist format over the first season's forced dramatics. This season is no different. Every episode works as a finely crafted one-act play: two good actors in one room just talking. Byrne's excellent performance aside, the three patients are wonderfully acted by Khan, DeHaan, and Winger. Khan in particular creates a memorable portrait of a principled man coming to terms with the price those principles may have cost him.

These episodes are mini-dramas that could work on any theatrical stage and yet there's nothing theatrical about the way they're presented here. The episodes work primarily because of how carefully and subtly they're acted, photographed, and most crucially, edited. It's a symphony of carefully orchestrated close-ups and inserts that reveal the subtext of the conversation. Visually, this is vital because though Westen wishes to keep his thoughts from his patients, it is imperative that we are privy to them or else there would be little drama. Byrne does an amazing job of creating very specific and varied reactions that tip us off as to exactly what Dr. Weston might be thinking at any given moment. It's only through this very cinematic approach that a show about a one-sided conversation could be so gripping.

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Irrfan Khan, Debra Winger, Dane DeHaan, Amy Ryan Airtime: HBO, Mondays at 9 p.m.

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